The Transfiguration of the Lord
[March 6, 2011] Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord on the mountain. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Luke and Mark) this event marked the end of Jesus’ three-year Galilean ministry, the end of His public epiphany (manifestation) before He entered Jerusalem for His passion. From then on, as He made pilgrimage to Jerusalem, He took His disciples aside to teach them (though in Luke He continued to engage the crowds along the way, the Pharisees serving as a foil). On the church’s calendar, the Transfiguration marks the end of the season of Epiphany, the season that began with the Baptism of our Lord (symbolically marked by the coming of the magi to His light). The season of Epiphany thus began when a voice from the heavens announced at the Jordan, “This is My Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found My delight,” and ended when the same voice again uttered the same words on the mountain.
The Transfiguration is the peak between the Lord’s Baptism and the Cross. When Jesus left the Jordan, He manifested Himself to the people, but in humility. After the Transfiguration He took the path of humiliation, the Way of the Cross, as He began His final journey to Jerusalem. On the mountain, however, with only Peter, James and John present, His glory hidden by His kenosis (the self-emptying of Philippians 2:7), was revealed. The glory, as the Only-Begotten of the Father, was not attained but was already there, hidden. He came into the world with this glory, but it was veiled to our eyes. We only saw one like ourselves, though completely unlike ourselves in His relationship to God, “a tender plant before Him, like a root out of dry ground,” though He had “no attracting form nor majesty that we should desire Him” (Isaiah 53:2). The Transfiguration revealed for a brief moment that the glory that He attained in resurrection as Man He already possessed as the Son of God.
The plan of the Gospel according to John differs much from the synoptic gospels. Rather than separating our Lord’s ministry in Galilee from His ministry in Judea and Jerusalem, John’s gospel has the Lord going back and forth between Galilee and the Temple. Unlike the synoptic gospels, which focus on His Galilean ministry, John describes a presence that Jesus had in Jerusalem during the major festivals over the course of three years. Probably the disciple John who wrote the gospel (not to be confused with John the son of Zebedee and therefore not one of the Twelve) lived in the environs of Jerusalem, perhaps in the city itself or in Bethany. He was even connected somehow to the High Priest (John 18:16), maybe a priest himself. The character of the gospel reflects this difference of perspective.
The manifestation of our Lord Jesus in the Gospel according to John takes place in the first twelve chapters. After that He withdraws with His disciples to the upper room. The first twelve chapters tell the story of His coming from the Father. What happens after is the story of His going to the Father (13:1), and His subsequent coming to us as the Holy Spirit. The final sign that He offers is the raising of Lazarus from the dead in chapter 11. Chapter 12 (verses 12-50) ends this “half” of the gospel but it also segues—transitions us—into the beginning of the second half. Appropriately, therefore, its theme is the hidden glory of the Lord (12:41) and His coming glorification (12:28).
12:12-50 ends with the subtheme of blindness. The Father has glorified the Lord but the people are blind. The Lord has come as Light. Only those who “behold” Him believe into Him; the rest remain in darkness. I spoke on this (12:37-50) on the Sunday after Christmas, in place of speaking on the coming of the magi.
Though there is no description of the scene on the mountain in which our Lord was transfigured, the Gospel according to John has this passage on the theme of the Lord’s glory at the end of His public ministry. “Jesus said these things, and He went away and was hidden from them” (verse 36). In this passage a voice rumbles from heaven, “I have both glorified [My name] and will glorify it again,” the only time in the Gospel according to John when the voice from heaven speaks “out loud” as it were. This passage in John’s gospel, then, seems to most correspond to the Transfiguration on the Mount.
The Johannine Structure
But let us not force John’s gospel to play to the tune of the others. It has its own cruciform structure. The journey from the woman in Samaria to the woman in Bethany represent—according to the insight of Bruno Barnhart in The Good Wine: Reading John from the Center (NY: Paulist Press, 1989)—the horizontal arms of the cross. Mary anoints Jesus (as the Messiah-King) in a singular act of self-giving, symbolized by the broken alabaster vial of nard which fills the entire house with its fragrance. Something similar happened to our Lord Jesus when He laid down His soul in death and released the Holy Spirit to His disciples. However, here it is the disciple who does this as she worships (and adores) the Lord. We will speak more on this when the time comes.
What follows is the beginning of Jesus’ ascent to the cross, where the alabaster vial of His soul is broken for us. 12:12—21:25 represent the final arm of the cross, the upper part of the vertical beam. The entry into Jerusalem in 12:12-19 is His descent into the lion’s den, as it were.
12:12-50 forms a single unit. The anointed King’s “glorious” entry into Jerusalem is not without irony. The glory that people see and expect is not the glory that is His. The unit divides in three: 12:12-19 is His entry into Jerusalem, outwardly the Lord’s most “glorious” moment—at least in terms of public recognition. 12:37-50 is the conclusion: He has come as Light, indeed as the Lord of glory whom Isaiah saw in a vision (Isaiah 6); some beheld it, but in general people are blind and many reject Him. 12:20-36 is the core, then, in which the Lord Himself reveals the paradox: it is only by the utter humiliation of death that He—who already possesses the divine glory—can be glorified in His—and our—humanity.
This passage on the Lord’s glory corresponds most with 3:22—4:3, where it is John who says, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” on the lower part of the vertical beam of the cross. Only now it is the Lord Himself who must decrease in order that He may increase.
“Glorified” in the Terms of This World
When Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as the King of Zion spoken of in Zechariah 9:9, the Pharisees saw the crowd that hailed Him and said to one another, “You see that you are not doing anything worthwhile; behold, the world has gone after Him.”
As if on cue, “some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the feast” came up to Philip (Philip is a Greek name, so probably he was a Hellenized Jew and could easily speak Greek; see Acts chapters 6 and 8 ) and asked to see Jesus. These may have been proselytes to Judaism who had come from the Mediterranean Diaspora for the Passover. They too are impressed by Jesus and want to see Him. Not only the Galileans, and not only the Judeans and the people of Jerusalem, but indeed “the world, has gone after Him.” Perhaps this represents the widest extent of Jesus’ influence.
They would “see” Jesus. This word is worth noting in this context for Jesus will speak in verses 35-36 of being the Light that, for the time being, “is still among you a little while.” “While you have the Light, believe into the Light,” He says to the crowd. He is at pains for people to “see” Him, but what do the Greeks mean when they say it?
What is the light? It is the light of His glory. The word “glory” means brightness, radiance, shining, and brilliance. The glory of God is the manifestation of God who is Light. In verse 41 John tells us that Isaiah saw His glory—the glory of our Lord Jesus—when in the Temple he had a vision of the Holy One. “I saw the Lord sitting on a high and lofty throne, and the train of His robe filled the Temple. Seraphim hovered over Him … and one called to the other, saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy, YHWH of hosts; the whole earth is filled with His glory.’ And the foundations of the threshold shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke” (Isaiah 6:1-4).
This One, according to John in 12:38, is the same as the Servant of YHWH that Isaiah spoke of in chapter 53 when he asked, “Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of YHWH been revealed?”—the suffering Servant who would be “cut off out of the land of the living” and whom YHWH was pleased to crush and afflict with grief. The coming of the Servant of YHWH was the coming of YWHW Himself (Isaiah 40:3, etc.).
The Shekhinah is the dwelling or settling (abiding) of the divine Presence in the Tabernacle or Temple. When the cloud rested (shakhan) on the Holy Place (the inner shrine), it says the glory of YHWH filled the Tabernacle or Temple. The word is also used of the nesting of birds. When the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove and remained (settled) on Him, it was the Shekhinah of the Temple that descended upon the Temple of His Body in the form of the anointing that equipped Him for His ministry. The Shekhinah, like the Wisdom of God, expresses the feminine aspect of the divinity in the form of God’s Presence. The Shekhinah, however, speaks expressly of the glory of God, God’s manifest Presence. (The masculine aspect is expressed by the active “Word” of God.) In Jewish thought, the Shekhinah has a special affinity to the Sabbath and is even spoken of as the Sabbath Bride of YHWH; this has affinity with how the Presence of the Holy Spirit in the church makes the church the Bride of Christ (“the Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come!’” Revelation 22:17). The Wisdom of God in creation, the Shekhinah, the Anointing, the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ, are all the feminine Counterpart of Christ, the Groom of this Bride. Christ is never apart from this Companion, though in His humanity both His divine Sonship and the Spirit’s Presence were invisible to the “eye of flesh.”
Jesus is the Lord of glory, yet it is possible not to see His light. “He has blinded their eyes and He hardened their heart, that they might not see with their eyes and understand with their heart and turn, and I will heal them” (John 12:40; Isaiah 6:10). His glory is not the outward glory of public recognition. His true glory is hidden beneath public disgrace and humiliation; it is hidden in the cross.
We need to “see” with different eyes than the eyes of our soul. We need to see with spiritual eyes. Then, “He who beholds Me beholds Him who sent me. I have come as Light into the world, that everyone who believes into Me …” But if we only see in terms of His public recognition, our eyes are blind to the Light of His real glory.
The word “mystery” speaks of a reality that is there (the Presence) but can only be seen on another level of consciousness (spirit as opposed to soul) and needs to be revealed in order to be recognized.
When Philip and Andrew came to Jesus, Jesus does not invite the Greeks to see Him. Instead He speaks of His glorification. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” “His hour” in John’s gospel refers to the cross. It is on the cross that the Son of Man, then, is glorified. The Son of Man speaks of the glorious figure in Daniel 7:13 to whom “was given dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages might serve Him. His dominion is an eternal dominion, which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.” This greatness is far greater than what people could imagine when they hailed Jesus as their King. They thought in earthly terms, even religious terms, but Jesus is thinking in cosmic, universal terms. The Son of Man, however, cannot be glorified in such a way except by the cross.
The hour of His glorification has come. “Unless the grain of wheat falls in ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” While He possesses the glory of God in Himself, and the glory of God abides upon Him in the anointing, He wants this glory to multiply, to grow, to extend and even become communicable to others. This is what He means by “glorify” and “glorification.” It is another step, a quantum leap, an explosion of what IS.
“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all to Myself.” John explains that to be lifted up does not refer to the kind of exaltation that people usually think of—of rebutation, for example—but rather signifies the “kind of death by which He was about to die,” that is, He would be “lifted up” on the cross.
“Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the ruler of this world be cast out.” It is on the cross that the world is brought under judgment and the ruler of the world—Satan—loses his hold on the world. Therefore, if He is lifted up on the cross, Jesus would draw all—everyone and everything—to Himself: both in judgment and glorification. His own death and glorification in resurrection will be universal in effect.
By the death of His own soul through utmost obedience and submission to God’s judgment, Satan would lose any ground in Him. Jesus would make a burnt-offering, a holocaust, of His soul. He would then be beyond Satan’s reach, beyond temptation or harm. His own submission to God’s judgment on our behalf condemns the world which refuses to submit to God’s judgment, but it also effects what God requires of the world, namely the surrender to God’s judgment in the worship of utmost obedience in love. Anyone who is IN Him participates in His faithfulness and receives the forgiveness of their sins.
By this sanctifying work He draws (the word means “drag”) all things to Himself. All things come under condemnation and judgment, but—if they participate in the forgiveness of sins through Him—they can also now become fit for the “settling in” of the Shekhinah, for the dwelling of the Holy Spirit within them, for His dwelling within them through the Holy Spirit. Thus, if He dies, He will no longer abide alone, but will bear much fruit. The eternal life within Him as the “grain of wheat” will multiply into many grains of wheat as His single kernel sprouts to become a head of wheat. In each of the new grains of wheat the eternal life in Him now dwells.
This is the glorification of His own glory. The glory of God abided in Him alone but by His dying it comes to abide in many. The Only-Begotten becomes the Firstborn of many siblings. Eventually He will draw all to Himself, not only in judgment but in sanctification, and God will be all in all as the entire creation becomes glorified in Him. By resurrection, He becomes—in His humanity—the Firstborn of all creation.
We Too Must Lose Our Soul
When we believe into Jesus, the seed of eternal life is planted in our spirit, so that “he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:17). The Holy Spirit enters our spirit so that we become children of God (Romans 8:15-16). The Holy Spirit becomes the Spirit of sonship, not—as translations have it—adoption.
But our soul is not saved so instantaneously. Our soul is only saved gradually and the Bible does not speak of our soul as “saved” until we appear before the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus at His coming again, at His Second Advent. If we would save our soul, we must hate and lose our soul as it is now. Our soul now is in bondage to the powers of the world because it identifies itself with a false construct, which the Bible calls the “old man” (anthropos, human being) or Adam. This construct, which we inherited from Adam (the world), we ourselves have constructed as we shared in the world’s rebellion against God. The world’s rebellion against God becomes a rejection of reality. It has constructed a false sphere or “world” that it thinks is reality but is really a delusion. This realm thinks it exists on its own, apart from God, as a sealed system. It is the world’s attempt to insulate itself from God, to isolate itself from Him. All it has done, in fact, is to separate itself from reality in a realm of delusion, which the Bible calls “the Lie.”
If we hate this soul and lose it—our individual construct within the collective world—if we deny it and surrender it to death, then we shall keep our authentic soul unto eternal life. Our authentic soul will be permeated and transfigured by the divine life and will itself participate in and inherit (“enjoy”)—eternal life.
Thus, the disciple must not be content with a half salvation, a salvation of his or her spirit alone, but must follow Christ in the way of the cross (verse 26).
The Voice from Heaven
Even Jesus’ own soul is troubled by this prospect of dying (for His soul too must die—see John 10:17), but He refuses to pray that He might be saved from this “hour.” In John’s gospel there is no Gethsemane scene where Jesus struggles to accept, not the Father’s will per se but the “cup” of suffering the divine judgment. It is not as though His soul is not troubled by this “cup”—it is here in verse 27—but the Gospel according to John emphasizes Jesus’ boldly taking the cup by both handles. Here He does not plea; He prays, “Father, glorify Your name.” This was always Jesus’ will, no matter the boundless cost to His soul.
In response to His faithfulness, just as the heavens opened above the Jordan in response to the same faithfulness, a voice now speaks from heaven, “I have both glorified [My name] and will glorify it again.” The Father is glorified in the Son. The Son’s manifestation in the first twelve chapters of John’s gospel is the glorification of the Father. The glory of the Father is revealed by Christ to all those who have eyes to see it.
But how will the Father glorify His name again? In John 17 Jesus prays, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son that the Son may glorify You … I have glorified You on earth, finishing the work which You have given Me to do. And now, glorify Me along with Yourself, Father, with the glory which I had with You before the world was” (17:1, 4-5). The Son glorified the Father by giving eternal life to all whom the Father had given Him—for eternal life is to know the Father through the Son (17:2-3, 6). But now the hour has come, the “hour” of the cross, when the Father will further glorify Himself by glorifying the Son.
The glorification of the Son will come only through the Son’s laying down His soul as He passes through death. Only thus can the grain of wheat break open so the life that is within the germ can be released. Only thus can He bear much fruit and be multiplied in others. Only thus, in fact, can the eternal life which comes by believing into Him be released to those to whom He has revealed Himself.
A Final Plea
Jesus makes one final plea to the crowd which hears the thunder but does not recognize the Father’s voice. The rumbling of thunder forebodes the coming scene of the passion. The Jerusalem crowd only hears the thunder; they do not recognize the divine work that takes place in the center of it.
In spite of their blindness, Jesus tells them that He is the Light of God come among them if they would only “behold” Him (verses 45-46). “Walk while you have the Light!” The opportunity will not always be there. Walking is a euphemism of behavior. What is the “walking” that is required? To “believe into the Light, so that you may become sons of Light.”
Believe into Jesus, or rather, believe into who He is. If you do not, the darkness may overtake you and you will no longer know where you are going. Believe into Him while the opportunity is here, while the Word is still in your ears and on your mind. Open your heart to Him, to His reality, to the divine Presence, to the mystery that is all around you though it is hidden from your eyes. He is this mystery that calls all things into being, that keeps them in being, and that is their meaning and goal. Do not slip into the darkness of nothingness that we know as the “world.” The Word of the Gospel is the present means of His accessibility. Listen to it; hear its echo in your heart; take the leap and believe into Him who encounters you there.